Wednesday May 24, 2017

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Where Go the Boats

Dark brown is the river,
Golden is the sand.
It flows along for ever,
With trees on either hand.

Green leaves a-floating,
Castles of the foam,
Boats of mine a-boating—
Where will all come home?

On goes the river
And out past the mill,
Away down the valley,
A way down the hill.

Away down the river,
A hundred miles or more,
Other little children
Shall bring my boats ashore.

“Where Go the Boats” by Robert Louis Stevenson. Public domain.   (buy now)

It’s the birthday of physicist Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit, inventor of the mercury thermometer and the temperature scale of his namesake, born on this day in 1686 in modern-day Poland.

When Fahrenheit was 15 years old, his parents died after eating poisonous mushrooms. His younger siblings were put into foster homes, but Daniel was old enough to become a merchant’s apprentice in the Dutch Republic. It was in the merchant trade that he began to encounter thermometers as trade items. They had been invented just 60 years earlier, and measured temperature on a relative scale. Fahrenheit became so fascinated by the devices that he abandoned his apprenticeship, withdrew his inheritance, and ran away to study thermometer making.

His hometown, angered at his defection from his government-appointed apprenticeship, placed a warrant for his arrest. He spent many years on the run from the authorities, learning more about glassblowing, physics, and chemistry along the way.

Finally, at the age of 28, Fahrenheit became the first person to make a pair of thermometers that could give identical, objective readings. His scale is still the predominant American system of temperature measurement today.

It’s the birthday of American novelist Michael Chabon (books by this author), born in Washington, D.C. (1963). He won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Klay (2000), about two Jewish cousins who create a popular comic book series during the 1940s. Chabon was inspired to write the book after reading about Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel. They created the character of Superman, and sold the rights to the character to DC Comics for only $100.00. Chabon’s novels are most often concerned with nostalgia, American Jewish identity, and pop culture. He says the correct way to pronounce his name is, “Shea, as in Shea Stadium, and Bon, as in Bon Jovi.”

Chabon’s first novel was The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (1988), which he wrote as his thesis for the University of California-Irvine. His professor at the time loved it so much he sent it to his own literary agent, who got Chabon a great publishing deal. The book was a best-seller and became so popular Chabon was even asked to be in a Gap clothing ad. He declined the offer.

Michael Chabon is the author of Wonder Boys (1995), The Yiddish Policeman’s Union (2007), and Telegraph Avenue (2012). When asked how he gets the ideas for his novels, Chabon said, “Ideas are the easy part.” His newest novel, Moonglow (2016), concerns a character named Michael Chabon who investigates the history of his family. Chabon based parts of the book on his grandfather’s life, though it’s up to the reader to figure out which parts are drawn from real life, like the fistfight in a barrette factory, encounters with Alger Hiss, and rocket scientist Werner von Braun.

Chabon is notorious for his diligence when working on projects. He often writes five days a week, for five or six hours a day, trying to get at least 1,000 words written. He once spent five years working on a novel called Fountain City, about a man trying to build the perfect baseball park in Florida, and though he ultimately set the book aside, he considers the process to be a learning experience, saying, “I don’t think I could have worked on Fountain City for five years and generated as much material as I did if I didn’t have steady work habits. I think that if I learned anything, it’s that you can feel completely despairing and hopeless and in over your head and lost and incompetent in the course of writing a book, but that doesn’t mean all those things are true. You can fight your way through those periods to a new appreciation of what you’re doing and to a firmer grip on the material. If I had known that with Fountain City, I might have fought just a little longer to try to pull it together.”

In the book, the main character’s grandfather says: “After I’m gone, write it down. Explain everything. Make it mean something. Use a lot of those fancy metaphors of yours. Put the whole thing in proper chronological order, not like this mishmash I’m making you.”

It’s the birthday of Bob Dylan (books by this author), born Robert Zimmerman in Duluth, Minnesota (1941). He grew up in the declining mining town of Hibbing, Minnesota. He was a quiet kid, raised by Jewish parents, who loved listening to the Grand Ole Opry. But after he heard Little Richard on the radio, he wanted to play rock and roll, so his dad bought him an electric guitar and he formed a rock band at his high school, The Golden Chords. Then he went to the University of Minnesota, and as soon as he got to Minneapolis and heard a record by the folk singer Odetta, he went and traded in his electric guitar for an acoustic one. Then a friend gave him Woody Guthrie’s autobiography, and he was so inspired that he started learning all the folk songs he could and trying to sing like Woody. He performed in coffee shops around the university, and then, in 1961, when he heard that Woody Guthrie was dying of Huntington’s disease in New York City, he left for the East Coast to meet his hero and become a musician.

And he did both those things. He went to Greystone Hospital and found Woody Guthrie, and he played him songs, and visited him over and over. Later, Dylan said, “You could listen to his songs and actually learn how to live.”

He started performing in Greenwich Village clubs and coffeehouses, using the name Bob Dylan (he denies that he took his name from Dylan Thomas). He released his first album, Bob Dylan, in 1962. Within a space of just four years, the kid from Minnesota with the strange voice became a folk music sensation. In those years he released Bob Dylan, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, The Times They Are A-Changin’, Another Side of Bob Dylan, and Bringing It All Back Home; he became a symbol of the protest movement and civil rights, and stood on stage with Joan Baez while Martin Luther King Jr. performed his “I Have a Dream” speech; and he moved from old ballads to writing his own folk songs all the way to “Like A Rolling Stone,” which caused him to get booed at the Newport Folk Festival when he plugged in his electric guitar.

Bob Dylan has been called one of the greatest songwriters of all time, and even one of the greatest poets of all time. He won a Nobel Prize in literature in 2016.

It’s the birthday of poet Joseph Brodsky (books by this author), born in St. Petersburg, Russia (1940). He grew up in the Soviet Union and began writing poetry as a young man. He became popular in underground literary circles, but in 1964 he was arrested for “social parasitism” and sentenced to five years’ hard labor in Siberia. Writers and politicians from countries around the world protested his imprisonment, and he was released after 18 months.

In 1972 he left Russia for America, where he taught at several universities. He had translated English poetry from the time he was a teenager, so he was already fluent in English when he arrived in America, but it took several years before he began writing poems primarily in English. He said he wrote in English as a form protest against the Soviet Union, and also so he could reach a wider audience. He won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1987, and from 1991 to 1992 he served as poet laureate of the United States.

Brodsky said, “There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.”

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